Thursday, December 1, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXXIII (Dubai, the failed Eldorado-III)

I visited Dubai for a longer duration in 1994 when I also had the opportunity of participating in the first Arabian Travel Mart. I went on a private visit after getting a month's earned leave. The first thing I did on arrival was to call on the Director of the Indian Tourist Office in Dubai. This office looks after entire West Asia and is located in a multi-storey building in Deira. Syed Naqvi was the Director of the office. However, the most active and knowledgeable person with extensive contacts was Hind Al-Saleh, a Lebanese lady who was working as the Office Manager and also as a PR Manager. She was very happy to meet me as she had heard a lot about Kashmir but had not visited it. Naqvi asked her to arrange my meetings with the local press and travel trade. I had some slides about Ladakh and I made many presentations to the local journalists as well as travel agents. Those days Ladakh was considered the only safe destination in Kashmir. However, the local people were totally ignorant about it. In fact, Dubai had a large expatriate population of Europeans for whom Ladakh could be a very attractive destination.
My presentations to the journalists got wide coverage in the local press and the two prestigious papers, the Gulf News, and the Khaleej Times carried the stories prominently with my photograph. Subsequently, Air India and Indian Airlines also got interested in promoting Ladakh as well as Kashmir. The Indian Airlines announced special package fares which included trip to Jammu and Srinagar from Delhi with just an addition of 100 UAE Dhirams. This was quite cheap compared to normal domestic fare between Srinagar/Jammu and Delhi. In Dubai there is also a large Indian population who are keen to visit the Shrine of Mata Vaishnovdevi. They too got this special fare benefit and a large number of pilgrims went there.
During this visit I was also able to develop very good relations with Air India and the Indian Airlines management in Dubai. They too were keen to promote Kashmir as a tourism destination. Both the Air India and the Indian Airlines provided a number of complimentary passages to journalists and travel agents from Dubai to visit Kashmir and Ladakh. In fact, during my entire Dubai promotion including my trips after retirement in 2003, these airlines provided me over a dozen free business class tickets right from Srinagar to Dubai and back. My promotions did help them to increase the sales. For any tourism promotion it is imperative for the airlines and the tourist offices to work jointly.
The highlight of my 1994 visit to Dubai was participation in the Arabian Travel Mart which usually takes place in the first week of May every year. The Mart is actually directed towards the local people who take holidays in the hot summer months. Usually, the Arabs do not plan like the western holiday makers their travel well in advance. Most of the people decide on the spur of the moment or at the most a couple of months before the actual travel. The maximum participation in the Mart on a large and grand scale is from Europe, Middle East and some South East Asian countries. Those days Europe was still the most preferred destination. This may have changed somewhat after 9/11 as people of Arabian origin had to face lot of security checks especially in the west after that event. The Arabian Travel Mart is probably the most important travel meet after World Travel Mart of London and the International Tourism Bourse of Berlin. The exhibition centre which has been completely renovated now is probably one of the best in the world.
In 1994 it was not so impressive. However, there was still large attendance and it was a very successful meet. This event has been now going on for 18 years and in May, 2012, the 19th Arabian Travel Mart is being held. It was a privilege to be part of the Mart in 1994. In fact, I was introduced to Sheikh Mohammad, the ruler of Dubai who also visited the Mart. J & K Tourism has been participating in the event for past sometime and the response seems to be picking up. Had the Srinagar-Dubai flight not ended in a fiasco, the Arabian Travel Mart would have acted as a very good source generator for Kashmir Tourism. During the Mart I had an opportunity of not only meeting the travel people from across the Arab World but from entire Europe for whom Kashmir had been a very attractive destination. The first question these people would ask me was, "Is it safe to go to Kashmir?" The same question is being asked in foreign countries even now because of adverse travel advisories issued by some foreign offices. The event apart from being an ideal hub to promote a destination, allows travel people from across the world to meet each other and exchange notes on latest developments.
During the course of this visit I had the occasion of meeting the Indian Ambassador to UAE. He too was keen for promoting tourism to Kashmir. I also visited the Indian Consulate in Dubai and interacted with the Consul General. They too offered their good offices for promoting tourism to Kashmir by assisting in organising some food festivals in Dubai. Subsequently these festivals were organised on a regular basis by the Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation in some five star hotels of Dubai. I continued my trips to Dubai after retirement and in fact stayed for longer periods, almost three months at a time which is the maximum duration on a UAE visit visa. These trips were sponsored by Air India and Indian Airlines even after my retirement. Unfortunately, the travel industry in Kashmir was not able to cash these promotions. Only Mufti Sayed as the Chief Minister from 2003 tried his best to connect Dubai with Kashmir both for travel and trade but his short tenure did not allow him to achieve this objective. I will relate this story in the next episode.
To be continued….

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